Eras and Their Highlights

The Cold War

What led to the decline of communism in Eastern Europe?

Anticommunist sentiment among Eastern Europeans was bolstered by the actions and policies of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev (1931-). When Gorbachev took office in 1985, the Soviet economy was in decline. In order to reverse the trend, he advocated dramatic reforms to move the economy away from the government-controlled (communist) system and toward a decentralized system, similar to those of Western democracies. Gorbachev’s efforts to modernize the Soviet Union were not limited to the economy; he further proposed a reduction in the power of the Communist Party, which had controlled the country since 1917. Gorbachev’s programs for reform were termed perestroika (meaning “restructuring”). In the meantime, Gorbachev opened up relations with the West, which included visits with U.S. president Ronald Reagan (1911–2004), who strongly supported the Soviet leader’s programs. Gorbachev referred to his policy of openness as glasnost. Both Russian terms quickly caught on around the world. While the economic reforms produced a slow and painful change for the Soviet people and Gorbachev had many detractors (including government officials), he also had many supporters—both inside and outside the Soviet Union.

People in other Eastern European countries watched with interest the Soviet move toward a more democratic system. Strikes in Poland had begun as early as 1980, where workers formed a free labor union called Solidarity. But the following year, the Communist leaders of the Soviet Union pressured the Polish government to put an end to the movement—which it did. After Gorbachev became head of the Soviet Union and initiated sweeping changes, the reform movements in other countries soon realized that the Soviets under Gorbachev would no longer take hard-handed tactics toward anticommunist efforts in other countries. In 1989 the Polish government ceased to prohibit Solidarity, and the Communist party there lost influence. The same was true in Hungary, East Germany, and Czechoslovakia. By the end of the decade, most of the Eastern European Communist governments were overthrown in favor of democratic-oriented governments. The transition was effected differently in each country: the “overthrow” in Czechoslovakia was so peaceful that it was called the Velvet Revolution; while in Romania, a bloody revolt ensued, and hard-line communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu (1918–1989) was executed.

In 1990 multiparty elections were held in Romania, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, East Germany, and Bulgaria. The noncommunist party that was put in power in East Germany agreed to unification with West Germany, again creating one Germany on October 3, 1990. That same year Gorbachev received the Nobel peace prize for his contributions to world peace.

East German border guards watch as demonstrators pull down a segment of the Berlin Wall. The wall was removed in 1990, and East Germany reunited with West Germany.

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